The year in review: 2016, a new era in Alaska Politics
This was a year of firsts and the start of a new era in Alaska politics. Low oil prices lead to discussions that will shape the path of our state moving forward.
Alaska faced its biggest financial challenge since statehood, with a multi-billion dollar gap between the amount of money the state brought in from oil and the amount needed for state services.
“We have reached a point in our state’s history that we need to be looking sort of beyond oil a bit,” Gov. Bill Walker told reporters at a press conference during the legislative session.
Former Gov. Tony Knowles echoed the sentiment in an interview on KTVA’s Frontiers program in March.
“We will eat through two of our savings accounts within the next couple of, three years,” Knowles said. “When that happens, it will initiate an economic disaster.”
For the first time, the Alaska Senate approved a plan to use part of the money for dividend checks to solve the state’s budget problem. The Alaska House Finance Committee rejected the proposal. Ultimately, Walker made history — he vetoed half of the money for 2016 dividend checks.
“It’s not the popular thing to do but it’s the right thing to do,” Walker said at the time.
Looking for money beyond oil, Walker introduced the state’s first statewide income tax proposal since the 1980s.
“I don’t like taxes at all, but it’s not a matter of what I like or don’t like, it’s a matter of what Alaska needs,” Walker said of the proposal.
Alaska once seemed closer than ever to getting a natural gas pipeline with three big oil companies partnering on the project, but that changed this year when those partners pulled out.
“That means it will likely be of more cost to the state, and we are really trying to balance our essential state services,” Rep. Geran Tarr said of the change.
Alaska made political strides in other areas. Lawmakers updated the state’s Military Justice Code for the first time since the 1950s, after allegations of sexual assault and corruption in the Alaska National Guard.
“Soldiers need to understand or see that, hey, when somebody makes a mistake or willfully does something wrong, or they’re just bad actors, the command has the ability to do something about it,” U.S. Army Col. Lee Knowles said of the new code.
For the first time in recent memory, an Alaska community recalled its mayor, when receipts showed the North Slope Borough’s Charlotte Brower spent thousands of dollars of borough money on purchases that benefited her own family, including a trip for her children and grandchildren to a celebrity basketball camp.
The 2016 election tipped the scale of power in the Alaska House of Representatives. For the first time since 1992, Democrats are now in charge. Lawmakers are navigating uncharted territory with big changes still on the horizon.
The Legislature’s overhaul of the criminal justice system this year, known as Senate Bill 91, is controversial. It’s likely to come up for discussion, along with the budget, next session.
The Alaska Legislature also suffered the loss of one of its own with the death of Rep. Max Gruenberg in February. Ivy Spohnholz was selected to replace him, and legislators pledged to continue the bills he’d introduced before his death. With more than 20 years in the Alaska Legislature, Gruenberg was the longest serving lawmaker in the Alaska House.
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